International sanctions do not appear to be undermining Iran’s ruling elite or creating opportunities for the latent opposition, says a new report from Kenneth Katzman, a specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
The international community has hoped that international sanctions might strengthen those in Iran who might argue that Iran’s nuclear program is carrying too high a cost. There has been a split since early 2011 between President Ahmadinejad, who is said to favor a deal, and the Supreme Leader, who tends to consider any deal with the West as a U.S.-led plot to undermine Iran’s regime. Factions loyal to the Supreme Leader were the clear winners of the March 2012
parliamentary elections, leaving Ahmadinejad largely marginalized until his term ends in June 2013.
These political splits were not driven primarily by differences over international sanctions. However, as sanctions have visibly weakened Iran’s economy, most Iranian politicians are blaming Ahmadinejad for mismanagement that has aggravated the effects of sanctions. After Iran’s currency collapsed on un-official trading markets in early October 2012, triggering large street protests, a sufficient number of Iranian parliamentarians (94, which is more than the 74 needed) signed onto a formal request that Ahmadinejad appear before the Majles (parliament) to answer questions about the currency crisis.
One U.S. intelligence official told journalists in January 2012 that the Administration believes sanctions could also be used to undermine the Iranian regime outright, although that is not the widely stated goal of U.S. and international sanctions. The October 3, 2012, street demonstrations protesting the currency collapse mostly blamed the regime, and particularly Ahmadinejad. Earlier evidence of economic frustration came in the form of a riot in the town of Nishapur—formerly a bastion of support for Ahmadinejad—in late July because the price of chicken, a staple of many Iranian dishes, had escalated beyond the reach of many families.
These street actions were significant but they were not sustained, suggesting they do not amount to a burgeoning uprising against the regime. Iran’s population, whether opposed to or supportive of the government now, have lived through deprivation during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War.
The regime also closely watches the attitudes and opinions of Iran’s influential merchant class (“bazaaris”). The bazaaris’ shift against the former shah of Iran was key to his downfall. The bazaaris have tended to support the current regime as a provider of economic stability, but they closed their shops in Tehran on October 3, 2012, to protest the currency collapse. However, the shutdown was not sustained beyond one day and no organized opposition seems to be emanating from this constituency.
Labor is also a key interest group. Labor strikes, particularly in the oil sector, were also key to the 1979 downfall of the shah’s rule. There were anecdotal reports of labor unrest in 2011, including strikes for overdue pay, but these strikes did not appear to have overtly political objectives.